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International Journal of Research and Innovation in Social Science (IJRISS) | Volume VI, Issue III, March 2022 | ISSN 2454–6186

A Critique of the Positivist Paradigm in Human sciences.

Jaja, Ibifuro Robert1, Idoniboye, Omiete2, Amadi, Cornelius Chukwudi PhD3

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1,2,3Department of Philosophy, Rivers State University, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria

Positivism is prominent term in the human sciences due to its cherished claim of objective knowledge. However, the continuous scrutiny of our knowledge claims has shook the very foundation in which positivism stands on. The rather slow reaction of proponents of positivism to the criticisms levied on their paradigm have also truncated the development of the human sciences. This paper therefore critically appraises the positivism with the intention to make clear its strong points and pitfalls. We established the philosophical foundations of the positivist paradigm and the philosophical implication of the tenets of positivism was highlighted. The
study contended that the attainment of objective knowledge and generalizable laws in the human sciences is almost impossible. In conclusion, this paper calls for the accommodation of other methodologies or paradigms in the human sciences and a reconsideration of the objective of the human sciences.

Keywords: Human Sciences, Positivism, Methodology, Philosophy, Objective Knowledge.


Man has been perplexed by his very own existence from time immemorial. This perplexity prompted philosophy as a field of study. The Ionian philosophers sought to know the ex qui material constitu mundi (constituting material of the universe) and arrived at different answers. These answers were not finalizing, they however raised more questions and spurred more persons to philosophize. Over the years, philosophers came up with various answers to the perplexing questions of the universe. This many takes from various philosophers was not satisfactory, hence philosophers began to search for objective answers to the questions alike. This search birth positivism which initiated a shift from abstract and speculative metaphysics to a more systematic search for objective and infallible knowledge.
The scientific study of the “given” (in Latin datum or, in the plural, data)‟ the positivists believe, will lead to the revelation of objective knowledge that is replicable world over. They also believe that the scientific method is applicable in the social phenomena and achieve as much successes as in the study of natural phenomena. The peak of the success of this endeavor is hinged on their discovery of objective and generalizable in the human sciences. This feat is yet to be achieved. However the tenets of positivism remains widespread in the study of social phenomena.
The methodologies, objective and questions asked in the human sciences are still largely influenced by the positivist paradigm. The million dollar question raised is, can we attain objective knowledge in the human sciences or is the scientific study of social phenomena an effort in futility? This paper will attempt to answer this question. By so doing, it will uncover the ontological foundation of positivism and its implication for the human sciences and consequently, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the positivist school of thought.

A Highlight of the Tenets of Positivism

Positivism in Western philosophy is generally any system that confines itself to the data of experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculations. The positivist school of thought have gone through several alterations over the years, however the core principles have endured.
The positivist paradigm was popularized by August Comte who opines in his Course of Positive Philosophy that the various sciences developed through three stages – theological, metaphysical, and, eventually, positive science. Comte repudiates metaphysics and insists that reality can be known through the systematic study of observable data. He also asserts that we can arrive at infallible knowledge when we apply the systematic methods of science to our sensory experiences. Generalizable laws and infallible knowledge for the positivist, can be achieved both in the study of natural phenomena and social phenomena. In studying social phenomena, causal relationships can be established. The establishment of causal relationship in social phenomena hence, makes it possible to make predictions about the future. This prediction will in turn aid in the control and reorganization of social reality.